Considering how few U.S. airlines fly direct to Russia, this warning is more about saying "we're watching" than publicly identifying a real threat.
Airlines flying to Winter Olympics host Russia are being warned to watch for toothpaste tubes containing materials that could used by terrorists to make a bomb, according to a U.S. law enforcement official.
The official declined to elaborate on the intelligence that sparked the alert, which was sent yesterday to U.S. and foreign carriers, just two days before the start of the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the warning publicly and asked for anonymity.
Security at Sochi is tight in response to threats of terror strikes by Islamic militants. The Black Sea resort is just a few hundred miles from the North Caucasus region where Russia has been battling Islamic extremists. Russia is looking into the warning, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told reporters in Sochi today.
U.S. Representative Peter King, chairman of the House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, said yesterday that airlines and people attending the games should take such threats seriously. The New York Republican declined to go into detail about the warning to carriers.
“Odds are nothing is going to happen, but the odds are higher than for any Olympics, I believe, that something could happen,” King said in an interview on CNN.
Even with heavy security at the Olympics sites, he said “there’s real cause for concern” in areas outside of official venues. King said that while fans and guests are “reasonably safe,” he wouldn’t attend the games as a spectator.
The warning to carriers was reported earlier by ABC News.
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the agency “regularly shares relevant information with domestic and international partners, including those associated with international events such as the Sochi Olympics.”
“We are not aware of a specific threat to the homeland at this time,” the DHS said in the statement. “This routine communication is an important part of our commitment to making sure we meet that priority.”
Delta Air Lines Inc. is alone among the major U.S. carriers in serving Russia, with one daily Moscow flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Spokesmen for Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines declined to discuss security issues, as is customary in the industry.
The Transportation Security Administration, which is part of DHS, restricts the size of carry-on containers of gels and liquids, including toothpaste tubes, to no more than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters). The limit doesn’t apply to checked bags, which are scanned by explosives detection machines.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to keep Sochi safe by locking down the seaside city of about 345,000, deploying 40,000 police and secuirty agents and state of-the-art equipment.
Sochi, which lies west of the Caucasus Mountains, borders one of Russia’s most economically distressed regions, stretching from Chechnya to Dagestan. A separatist movement in Chechnya grew into an Islamist insurgency that spilled into nearby provinces and which Russia has struggled to suppress.
Three suicide attacks last year rocked Volgograd, about halfway between Moscow and Sochi. Russian security forces staged a raid in Dagestan earlier yesterday, killing the leader of an extremist group suspected in two of the attacks.
Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday the U.S. has 140 people, including FBI agents, Homeland Security personnel and the military working with the Russians on security.
The Olympics in Sochi will be as “safe as you can make any large public event in a place where obviously we all know there have been some threats of late,” Kerry said in an interview on CNN. “We feel that everything has been done that can be done to try to guarantee people safety and security.”
The games open tomorrow and run through Feb. 23. As many as 10,000 Americans are expected to visit Sochi, according to four Obama administration officials who briefed reporters on Jan. 24 on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. has warned athletes and fans planning to attend the Olympics to be aware of recent terrorist threats from Islamic militants, and the Pentagon has said it’s prepared to evacuate Americans from Russia if needed.
President Barack Obama was briefed Feb. 4 on security and support for U.S. athletes and “he was assured by his team that they are taking all appropriate steps regarding the safety of Americans,” the White House said in a statement.
The U.S. also has moved two ships, the USS Mount Whitney and the USS Taylor into the Black Sea in recent days to be ready to assist in any security operations or evacuations in the event of a terrorist attack.
King said he had “some confidence” in Russian authorities’ security preparations. Even so, he faulted Russia for “not sharing enough intelligence” from inside the country about potential threats.
“The Russians, for instance, are cooperating nowhere nearly as much as the British did, the Chinese did, the Greeks did,” King said, referring to the hosts of the 2012, 2008 and 2004 Summer Olympics.
With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas and Stepan Kravchenko in Sochi, Russia. Editors: Scott Rose, Torrey Clark. To contact the reporter on this story: Del Quentin Wilber in Washington at [email protected] To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at [email protected]
Photo credit: Security officials are worried about toothpaste on planes bound for Russia. zoomar / Flickr